Colon Cancer

Overview

Doctors diagnose about 140,000 cases of colon cancer, more commonly called colorectal cancer, per year in the United States. This cancer often causes no symptoms in the early stages, and is the second leading cause of cancer deaths. Successful treatment is more probable when doctors catch colon cancer early. Regular screening and maintaining a healthy lifestyle reduce the risk for developing colon cancer.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Colon cancer often presents no symptoms in its earliest stages, but as the disease progresses patients often notice changes in bowel movements. Persistent constipation, diarrhea, thin stools or inability to empty the bowel indicate changes in bowel habits. Blood in the stool, abdominal pain and discomfort, fatigue and unintended weight loss are also common symptoms of colon cancer.

The first step in diagnosing colon cancer is often a checkup where a physician will discuss symptoms, medical and family history, and conduct a blood test. While this blood test cannot directly diagnose colon cancer, it does indicate overall organ health for the physician. When a doctor or patient suspects colon cancer, several tests can detect its presence. To see inside the rectum and colon, doctors perform a colonoscopy. Here, doctors insert a tiny camera into the lower bowel and intestine to search for signs of cancer. Doctors may also use a barium enema x-ray or CT scan to create a picture of bowel health. These tools can detect precancerous polyps or cancerous lesions in the colon and rectum.

As part of the diagnosis, a doctor will stage the cancer. Staging refers how aggressive and widespread the cancer is, and determines which treatment options are best. Stage I colon cancer only affects the lining of the colon. Stage II colon cancer has spread through the colon wall, though it does not yet affect lymph nodes or organs. By Stage III, the cancer has spread from the colon to surrounding lymph nodes, and Stage IV involves metastasis in which cancer invades other organs.

Causes

Like other cancers, colon cancer occurs when cells mutate. This mutation causes uncontrolled cell growth and reproduction. While the exact mechanism behind this mutation is unknown, doctors do know there are some risk factors that make cancer more likely. Patients over age 50 are more likely to develop colorectal cancer, as are African-Americans and Eastern Europeans. Genetics play a role and a family history of the disease is an indicator of increased risk. Diabetes and a medical history that includes previous cancer treatment, poor diet, obesity, smoking, alcohol use, and a sedentary lifestyle all increase risk.  Continue reading for Prevention information . . .

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